Ambiguity exists in every sport. I’ve never known what a foul in basketball is or how in the world they decide someone is holding in football. But, with the two-game suspension of Washington Capitals star forward Alex Ovechkin, the NHL is setting a new standard.
On Sunday, March 14, during the Capitals/Blackhawks game on NBC, Ovechkin hit Blackhawks’ defenseman Brian Campbell in the back as Campbell was attempting to clear the puck. Campbell went face first into the boards injuring his clavicle. Ovechkin went to the penalty box first, then was given a game misconduct and was ejected. Ovechkin, who was given a two-game suspension by the league, was puzzled by his punishment saying he just gave Campbell a “little push.”
Everyone has an opinion on this one. I’ve heard everything from, “Campbell was already falling,” to “Ovechkin’s gonna get it one day,” to even “That shouldn’t have been a penalty!” At least one thing became quite clear: Nobody has any idea what defines clean and dirty in the NHL.
This one reminds me of the age-old “was he throwing at him” discussion in baseball. Every year we see pitchers get suspended and fined for throwing at batters in retaliation for anything from merely hitting a home run to breaking some rule in baseball’s outdated “code of honor.” Then, post-suspension, we debate. The difference is, in baseball we’ll never know what the pitcher was thinking. In hockey, we’ll never know what NHL head disciplinarian Colin Campbell was thinking.
Colin Campbell decided Ovechkin’s hit was a two-game suspension’s worth of dirty. Does that mean the shove was equally as dirty as the knee-to-knee hit that brought Ovechkin his first two-game suspension? Keep in mind, according to the official NHL rulebook, it is at the discretion of the referees whether to toss the Washington captain. But, under “boarding” rule there is no outline of what type of suspension comes with a boarding game misconduct. Franchises and fans deserve explanations for their stars being forced to sit. If experts can’t understand how suspensions are doled out, how can casual fans?
To give you an idea of how at-random the suspensions are, in the 2009-10 season there have been four one-game, twelve two-game, five three-game, three five-game suspensions and one four-game suspension. I’m thinking Campbell uses a bingo machine to pick the number of games a player must sit.
I’ve tried to understand the Ovechkin suspension. It’s because Brian Campbell was hurt on the play, right? Maybe. But, Matt Cooke wasn’t suspended after blindsiding Marc Savard of the Boston Bruins giving him a serious concussion. It was because Ovechkin has already been suspended this year, right? Matt Cooke was suspended earlier this season for a hit on Artem Anisimov and did not receive a penalty for the Savard hit.
To make matters worse, the number of games doesn’t even match up with a suspension from 10 days before Ovechkin’s hit. Canadiens’ Maxim Lapierre was suspended four games for blindside-crosschecking Scott Nichol into the boards. The inconsistencies make the NHL look like a bad episode (like they all aren’t bad) of Law and Order.
It’s even possible that Ovechkin has a target on his back; a bad reputation that landed him this particular game misconduct. There are 109 players with more majors and three players with five misconducts, none of which has been suspended and none of which has more than one game misconduct. It seems plausible that Alex’s star power worked against him in this instance. But, we’ll never really know without a clear cut definition of suspendable offenses.
Don’t worry fans, the Cavalry is on its way. On March 10, the NHL general managers told the Associated Press they were looking into dangerous hits in the NHL. Former player and current Dallas Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk said, “Clearly, the blindside and the unsuspecting player is what we’re targeting.” One GM said they wanted a clear definition of a dangerous hit by the end of the GM meetings. Here’s a quote: “If you nail someone from behind or from the side when they're not looking, you will be subject to supplementary discipline.”
Matthew Coller is host of The Blue Line Show on ESPN 950 Rochester and is an author of the Business of Sports Network.
Matthew Coller is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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